Archive for December, 2018

Film Review: Roma

December 30, 2018 Leave a comment

Roma (2018; Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

What is film for? For Academy Award-winning Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, it is a medium for complete sensory immersion, a complex machine for empathy, an ever-unspooling canvas for galvanizing, soul-shaking images. This is the form that the extraordinary, semi-autobiographical Roma takes, a technical wonder and a moving narrative of pain and healing, loss and love, confusion and despair and chaos and still silence (the kind that can be comforting, unsettling, terrifying, or all three at once). It is one of the year’s truly remarkable films, but it would be so in any year, at any point in the career of a filmmaker who, if he is not the world’s best at the moment, has vanishingly few challengers.

Shot in stunningly beautiful and tonally communicative black and white (Cuarón himself is the cinematographer), Roma is a slice-of-life story about Cleo (Yalitzia Aparicio), a live-in housekeeper for an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighbourhood at the start of the 1970s. Cleo witnesses the quotidian struggles of the family that employs and loves her, and suffers her own tribulations and small joys alongside them. She watches as the family’s medical doctor patriarch (Fernando Gradiaga) leaves his wife (Marina de Tavira) and four children (Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta), joins the remaining family unit on vacations, and deals with her own crisis as an unplanned pregnancy coincides with the infamous El Halconazo (a.k.a. the Corpus Christi Massacre) of June 1971.

Roma is named for the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City in which the family’s home is situated, but the tentative cinephile can’t help but speculate that the title might also nod to Federico Fellini’s 1972 film also called Roma. Cuarón isn’t quite one for Fellini’s Grand Guignol carnivalesque flair, but both the contemporaneous era and the aesthetic voyeurism of his camera lingering over tableaux of memory-soaked street and domestic settings suggests that Fellini’s work is intended as a reference point of artistic context. Roma is also largely constructed of Cuarón’s trademarked long takes, but the sequences of single-take cinematic bravado in Children of Men or Y Tu Mamá También or Gravity are here imbued with organic warmth and seemingly improvised (though no doubt minutely choreographed) naturalism.

Quiet interiors, bustling streetscapes, lively celebrations, buzzing countrysides and beaches all ache with visual poetry, given a varnish of historical shimmer by Cuarón’s own monochrome cinematography and his fundamental technique of foreground/background contrast. The director/DoP demonstrates with stunning simplicity how gorgeous and varied his colourless palate can be in the film’s first sustained shot during the opening credits: a fixed close-up of floor tiles in different grades of grey develops to include the reflection of a skylight in the puddle of water, undulating mop-pushed soap suds, and even the silhouette of a passing airplane. Roma may be shot in only two colours, but it feels like a rainbow.

It is also a masterclass in the application of film technique and its constituent elements in anticipating, elevating, and amplifying emotional beats. When oft-absent father Antonio returns home, his eager family must wait while he parks his too-big Ford Galaxie with exacting precision in the house’s carport; Cuarón shoots this everyday task with quick-cutting tension and humming sound to establish a picture of a man who cares deeply about things other than his loved ones. When Antonio leaves on another claimed work trip, his wife Sofia watches him drive away from their home (for the last time, as it turns out) as a cacophonous brass band marches disruptively past her on the street. A climactic moment of danger on a beach is teased through childish imaginative patter, and the potential fatal enormity of the event is imparted by the huge, flattening sound of the crashing ocean waves.

Film history and intertextuality, too, is employed by Cuarón in telling his story and giving it emotional contour. Cleo tells her martial arts enthusiast boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) that she is pregnant by him in the back row of a movie theatre showing a screwy German war comedy; when he leaves, ostensibly to use the bathroom, the finality of his departure from her life (though they have two later meetings of a far more terse nature) is suggested by a fighter plane plunging through the sky on the movie screen. The family later attends another movie, 1969’s Marooned (which Cuarón has spoken about watching obsessively as a child, and an obvious influence on Gravity), and that film’s shots of astronauts adrift in the cold vastness of space approximates the existential uncertainty felt by Cleo as a future single mother and by the family in the absence of their father figure. Cuarón even references his own past work, namely a moment of both underlining and predicting during the El Halconazo sequence that recreates the imagery of maternal mourning of a dead, beloved son of Michelangelo’s La Pietà, much like a scene in Children of Men does.

This species of imaginative travel, for Alfonso Cuarón in Roma as much as (if not more than) anywhere else in his distinguished career, is what film is for. Critics toss terms of praise at any number of overwrought cinematic fantasies like “sweeps you up” and “transports you”, but Roma really does these things, only in a context of heightened realist fidelity. You are there in Mexico City in 1971, tracking past truckloads of bored riot cops ordered to sit on their hands and let paramilitary strike squads murder leftist protestors. You are there at an opulent hacienda haunted by the mounted heads of dead animals on New Year’s Eve, watching party guests and their children hurl buckets of water at a small forest fire while a costumed monster remove his false head and sings a mournful song (a moment of Bergman-esque art-film panache). And above all, you are there seeing the world through the eyes of a meek, ordinary housekeeper, the drudgery of her days but the love and the hurt of them, too. For Alfonso Cuarón, film is a rocket-ship of immersive perspective, hurling his captive audience into a reality unlike their own but entirely familiar and sympathetic too, with every measure of distance and time on the journey a vivid, moving landscape of fleeting eternity. Given this, Roma is his magnum opus, and a great, soulful machine of film.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

December 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018; Directed by Rich Moore & Phil Johnston)

When we last saw that big lovable lug Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) six years ago, he seemed to have found his place in the world at last. Once a stereotyped and excluded building-smashing arcade game villain, Ralph earned the respect of his coded-as-good peers in his home game of Fix-It Felix Jr. and across the rest of Litwak’s Arcade by heroic and selflessly helping another pariah, the cutesy but spunky Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), overcome a recurring nervous glitch and usurping monarch to regain her rightful place as the top performer in the candy-themed racing game Sugar Rush. Now Ralph and Vanellope are best friends, spending their off-hours together in Game Central Station, the main commuting hub of the arcade for video-game characters, sipping root beer in the bar from Tapper and watching the sun come up through the plug holes of their familiar power-bar terminal.

Ralph is loyal and big-hearted but a bit simple, so the repetition of life in the arcade suits him more than it does the bright, restless, and competitive Vanellope. When she expresses boredom at the prospect of racing along the same three track in Sugar Rush indefinitely, Ralph comes to her aid by punching a new course through the game’s saccharine landscape. Vanellope is thrilled at the new challenge, but her freewheeling navigation of Ralph’s course frustrates her human player outside in the arcade and leads to a broken part on the Sugar Rush machine that cannot be cheaply replaced. Sugar Rush is shut down, leaving Vanellope, her fellow racers, and the supporting characters in the game homeless, and Ralph feeling that he is to blame.

Moving through this surprisingly deft pixelated analogy for contemporary refugee crises (the other racer girls are adopted by Fix-It Felix Jr. and his tough-talking alien-shooting-game partner Calhoun, voiced by Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch respectively, in a parenthetical subplot consisting of a few parenting jokes), Ralph and Vanellope decide to try to save Sugar Rush by venturing through the arcade’s new Wifi router into the vast gleaming city-of-the-future of the Internet, where they hope to purchase the last available replacement steering wheel for Sugar Rush from eBay before the machine is sold off for parts and Vanellope and her fellow racers are left permanently homeless. But their quest will lead to an irrevocable change in their friendship when Vanellope comes across a tantalizing, challenging online open-world driving game called Slaughter Race and Ralph proves reluctant to let his friend follow her dreams there when they appear likely to separate her from him.

If Wreck-It Ralph peppered its narrative of outcasts overcoming exclusionary labels with vintage video game references and character cameos, then its sequel colours its story about accepting change and space in human relationships with a cascade of nods and winks to online culture, internet memes, major websites, and tech companies. The gags are imaginative and rapid-fire: web surfers are personified as squarish avatars which zip along in flying-car-like pods on information superhighways; Twitter is a twisting, towering tree forest, with thousands of tiny blue birds literally re-tweeting each other’s utterances; Instagram is envisioned as a huge art museum, with avatars gazing thoughtfully at snaps of plated food; motormouthed hustlers bustle about with their garish pop-up ads, only to be knocked away by g-man-like adblockers; down at street level is the dimly-lit, seedy Dark Web, with disreputable shops selling viruses and other not-exactly-legal goods and services are for sale; not far from there is a graveyard of past computer networking mainstays like public chatrooms and phone-line dial-up.

Some Internet locations are more detailed than others, as they play a key role in the plot. Google-esque search engine Knowmore features a professorial librarian (Alan Tudyk, who voiced a character in the first film too) who breathless attempts to autocomplete surfers’ hesitant searches. eBay is a vast series of physical auctions booths. Slaughter Race is a tough-as-nails, skull-tattoo-emblazoned, semi-post-apocalyptic urban wasteland gamescape, a Grand Theft Auto-like MMORPG presided over by master wheelwoman and gang queen Shank (Gal Gadot). Vanellope and Ralph try to earn the eBay auction payment money for the Sugar Rush part by stealing Shank’s car; they do not succeed, but the kid’s driving skills impress Shank and the unpredictable setting appeals to Vanellope, precipitating her ambition to move to the game and the pending friendship schism with a clingy Ralph.

Ralph then becomes a viral star at YouTube-like video upload site BuzzzTube with the help of Shank’s hip and savvy bud Yes (Taraji P. Henson) in an effort to raise the necessary funds to pay for their eBay bid, hoovering up heart-shaped likes with ghost-pepper challenges and photoshopped screaming goats and bee puns. But Vanellope, trawling for hits and likes for Ralph’s videos, ventures into the gigantic castle-shaped website of the film’s producing and distributing studio, Disney. In between cartoon cameos from the studio’s many properties from classic animated characters to Marvel superheroes (I Am Groot jokes, ahoy!) and a pursuit by Star Wars stormtroopers, Vanellope happens upon a dressing room full of Disney princesses (many of whom are voiced by the actresses who played them in their original films).

There follows a pretty funny and sharp critical analysis (over the first minute of the linked clip only) of the studio’s common princess tropes: “Do animals talk to you?” the princesses ask Vanellope. “Were you poisoned? Cursed? Kidnapped and enslaved? Did people assume all of your problems got solved because a big, strong man showed up?” The princesses share with Vanellope their favoured method of self-reflection and dream-fulfillment: gaze thoughtfully into a body of water (“IMPORTANT water!”) and sing about their heart’s desire. After a false start or two, Vanellope pours out her yearning to explore an exciting new game realm in a hilarious showpiece musical number, “A Place Called Slaughter Race” (lyrics by Disney musical maven Alan Menken, no less!). This sequence’s humour largely stems from the incongruity of the visual and aural language of Disney Animation musical aspiration being applied to a hardcore car-battle game set in an atmosphere of gritty, lawless urban decay (dumpster fires, clouds of mace, a pigeon with one foot, a dollar store, etc.). Wreck-It Ralph showed a keener eye than its sequel for American class subtext, but this sequence at least gestures with a softened satirical glance towards the consequences of socioeconomic inequality and to its exploitative caricaturing in media like Rockstar’s GTA games.

Vanellope’s big strong man is not sufficiently supportive of her dreams, however, and Ralph’s insecure and possessive behaviour towards his friend drives Ralph Breaks the Internet to its narrative, emotional and thematic climax (the following discussion of which will spoil the rest of the film, FYI). In between its arcade-classic shout-outs and candy-coated whimsy, Wreck-It Ralph included resonant themes about the powerful and the marginalized, about the dangers of stereotypes, about sacrificing individuality for order, liberty for security, along the terms of what we call the social contract (and by “we”, I of course mean “Thomas Hobbes”). Ralph Breaks the Internet pivots with surprising emotional clarity and power to issues of psychological insecurity. Vanellope’s scrambled-code “glitch” now manifests when she feels anxious, a deft visual marker of the emotional condition.

But it’s Ralph’s masculine insecurities, his anxiety at losing his new best friend and being left alone again (understandable to an extent, given his outcast history in his game home), that predominate. It leads him to hijack Vanellope’s move to Slaughter Race with a virus named Arthur (provided to him by a Dark Web underworld blob creature given a Cockney gangster voice by Alfred Molina) that preys on and endlessly copies insecurities in programs, which first crashes Slaughter Race by replicating Vanellope’s glitch and then threatens the entirety of the Internet by producing hordes of needy, clingy Ralph clones. They swarm to topple monolithic buildings/sites like Amazon and then combine to form a King Kong-ish Big Ralph made up of Little Ralphs whose rampaging sparks a final emotional reckoning in Vanellope and Ralph’s friendship.

This surprisingly powerful climax blends emotional and thematic arcs with notable visual invention in the animation in an impressively cohesive manner. In this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet makes a strong point about unhealthy behaviour in relationships, about how poisonous possessiveness is driven by insecurity and fear of change and uncertainty. Although these themes and ideas are not connected directly and openly to displays of online toxic masculinity (Ralph does have a sad moment when he stumbles upon the mean comments about his BuzzzTube videos, but these are not gendered particularly) and their more broad effects, this is after all a movie with “Internet” in its title that suggests rather pointedly that poorly-coped-with male insecurity can be catastrophic at the micro and macro levels. Crucially, the resolution in the conflict at the heart of Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship in this movie is achieved not through accommodation and sacrifice on the female side of the equation, but through behaviour adjustments and psychological checks on the part of the male side, through the acceptance, albeit one tinged with melancholy, of uncertainty, lack of security, and separation from the ones you love.

Animated features are often manifested didactically, and cynical observers might even label them forms of ideological brainwashing of impressionable youth. However one approaches them, the best and most thought-out among them are not merely entertainment but texts of education, embedding emotional and ideological messages of worth to their young audience. Taken in this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet contains vital and potently expressed ideas about problematic behaviour in friendships and, by extension though not in this text itself about the connection between an adult man and a female child, in more adult relationships and social interactions as well.

The movie also contains many hallmarks of kid-focused entertainment: the script includes numerous re-orientating restatements of plot goals, launches with abandon into its many adventurous picaresque episodes at the expense of narrative pacing, and leaves aside or simply forgets some introduced elements. Its brand-name saturation and corporate synergy feels right for our contemporary post-capitalist reality but might honestly be a bit too much, especially with the relative lack of critique in that regard. There are also some burping jokes which I suppose children will love. Ralph Breaks the Internet is hardly perfect, but it features the considered sophistication and deeply-workshopped strength of narrative, thematic, and visual elements that one has come to expect from big-budget, high-level animated features, especially those under the Disney aegis. And if it teaches even one male child to avoid the emotional and social pitfalls of Disney’s numerous toxic, chauvinistic MRA-adjacent online critics, then it has provided an important service beyond a couple hours’ worth of solid diversion and entertainment.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Other Side of the Wind

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

The Other Side of the Wind (2018; Directed by Orson Welles)

The filmic ouevre of Orson Welles was made to be written about, obsessively, rapturously, and above all inconclusively. Few other filmmakers have imbued their movies with so much of themselves, their ideas and beliefs and humour and pathos and tragedy and impossibly grandiose spirit. Welles balked at the thought of observers analyzing him through his films, but if he really felt that way, then he ought not to have poured so much of himself into them, filling them up like empty jars with kerosene and dropping in a lit match just to see what happens. Ultimately, even if he did not intend to make every film an extension of and commentary on his own richly-lived life, he couldn’t help himself. Orson Welles made movies as he lived: with all-consuming abandon and a completely voracious and unquenchable appetite.

When he finished those films, they were full to the brim with his boundless perfectionist energy, and thus were usually boundless, energetic perfectionist masterpieces. But he often did not finish them, for myriad reasons that tended to run towards the financial, practical, and even legal but were forever psychoanalytically diagnosed as deriving from the flaws of his own genius-level ambition or by-products of his enigmatic personality. Though a product of his times in a way that no film artist of our own era could possible be in the same way (one can just barely imagine a millennial Orson Welles today making a couple of brilliant Sundance-circuit indies before being signed on to make a Marvel movie; he’d make a pretty good one, too, probably, though might not get a chance to make a second), Welles’ epoch between the late 1930s and the start of the 1980s was in many ways the absolute wrong one for a filmmaker of his artistic predilections and methods. These decades comprised the golden age of Hollywood’s studio system, the rise of the European New Wave, then American film’s stunning metamorphosis under the influence of those works and of domestic social, cultural, artistic, and commercial forces. At every step, Welles found himself outside of not only the predominant trends and practices of the film mainstream but of its alternative, independent strands as well: his ambitions were too marginal for big-budget, profit-centric studio films and too grand for small, patchily-funded indies.

The Other Side of the Wind is probably Orson Welles’ most famous unfinished film, and was conceived and semi-executed by Welles self-reflexively and self-reflectively as a celluloid metaphor for the the themes and frustrations of his career, for his bemusement at his place in film history and at film history itself, and for the magic and the deceit of the movies. Conceived through the 1960s and filmed off and on from 1970 to 1976, The Other Side of the Wind has been mired in financial and legal disputes for 40 years which have involved unreliable producers, restrictions of French law, and the Iranian Revolution (the deposed Shah’s brother-in-law provided funding for the film, believe it or not). Now, finally, those issues have been sorted out, an edit and sound mix of the film completed, and Orson Welles’ final film, uncompleted and unreleased upon his death in 1985, can be streamed on Netflix alongside that Sabrina the Teenage Witch show, just as its creator intended.

The resulting finished product is part dated time capsule, part living, electrifying reclaimed masterwork, and all Orson Welles. The Other Side of the Wind takes Welles’ trademarked winking masked-autobiographical artistic themes and runs them to dizzying extremes. It’s the story of the final day of the life of a great, celebrated film director, J.J. “Jake” Hannaford (the magnificently craggy, stone-hewn John Huston). Hannaford, who made some classic films years ago in Hollywood but has built his reputation among cinephiles during creative exile in Europe before his swan-song return to the American cinema stage, is an obvious metaphorical stand-in for Welles himself, combined with the aggressive performative masculinity of Welles’ old Spanish-bullfight-enthusiast buddy Ernest Hemingway, whose death in 1961 was the spark that lit the film’s creative fuse in Welles’ tinder-dry mind.

The Other Side of the Wind introduces a dizzying array of characters (most of them based on then-current Hollywood figures that Welles knew and feuded with) who are travelling between the Paramount backlot and Hannaford’s desert home for a party celebrating the great auteur’s 70th birthday party, after which we are told that the man dies in a car crash that might be suicidal and might be accidental. These include Hannaford’s “mafia” of crew members, actors, and sundry hangers-on, other filmmakers (including cameos from French New Wave director Claude Chabrol, a stoned Dennis Hopper, now-disgraced CBS head exec Les Moonves, and a young Cameron Crowe), critics (including one based on Welles antagonist Pauline Kael, played by Susan Strasberg), and a gaggle of “film-freak” cineastes craving even the slightest snippet of brilliance from the great man (and dropping bitingly funny over-educated observations on his work like “the ontology of his iconography is so facile”).

Many of these film freaks are filming Hannaford and his entourage with handheld cameras, and therefore the party section of the film is presented as a mockumentary, furiously, energetically quick-cut between different lengths and grains of film. Like much of what Welles did in his films, this stylistic technique is now common practice but must have seemed, in the 1970s, revolutionary and strange. This mockumentary part of the film is contrasted with footage from Hannaford’s final film, a film-within-the-film also called “The Other Side of the Wind”, which is first screened for a dismissive Hollywood exec (Geoffrey Land, based on then-head of Paramount Robert Evans) and then shown in snippets during the party at Hannaford’s manse.

“The Other Side of the Wind” (the film inside The Other Side of the Wind, that is) is an aimlessly plotless experimental art film, a conscious parody of European New Wave movies about a young male drifter, played by Hannaford’s hand-picked lead John Dale (Robert Random), who desirously follows a sensuous, exotic, barely-clothed woman (referred to as a “Red Indian” by characters at the party, she is played by Croatian artist Oja Kadar, then Welles’ lover and partner) through blasted, post-apocalyptic locations and ruined backlot sets. Dale is conspicuously absent at Hannaford’s party (it’s suggested, with latent homoerotic whispers, that the director has used up and discarded many leading men in his time), and is replaced instead by a couple dozen dummies in the actor’s likeness perched on rocks above the pool like ravens of repressed reminder. Huston and Kadar shoot holes in the dummies with guns late in the film. The New Wave send-ups elsewhere in the film range from an unseen production in-joke (the Arizona home where most of Hannaford’s party was shot stood right next to a house blown up at the end of New Waver Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point) to openly droll mockery (a tangent of punchlines and puns name-dropping Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, and other luminaries of the movement).

If The Other Side of the Wind already sounds mind-bogglingly meta, rest assured that we have barely scratched the surface of how meta it is. Hannaford’s more-successful directorial protégé Brooks Otterlake is played by Peter Bogdanovich, who was, in the early 1970s, Welles’ more-successful directorial protégé. The character was originally played by impressionist Rich Little doing a Bogdanovich impersonation, but scheduling conflicts led to Little’s scenes being scrapped and Bogdanovich playing his own barely-fictionalized proxy. Welles plucked a blond waitress (Cathy Lucas) who couldn’t act to play a thinly-veiled version of Bogdanovich’s then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd, and ends the party with a moment of betrayal between Hannaford and Otterlake that presaged a public falling-out between Welles and Bogdanovich (though Bogdanovich executive produces the finished film, and was instrumental in its eventual release). The scene in which Hannaford’s candy-sucking toady Billy Boyle (Norman Foster, in an apparent reference to aged-out former child star Mickey Rooney) screens footage from the unfinished “The Other Side of the Wind” for the doubtful studio exec in an attempt to secure the funding to finish it was shown by Welles himself at his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award event in an attempt to secure funding to finish The Other Side of the Wind. Neither showcase worked. One nearly requires a flowchart to keep track of it all.

If The Other Side of the Wind sounds like an impenetrable thicket of inside references, art-film winks and nods, and intellectual navel-gazing, it’s not (only) that. This is the most kinetic, lively film that Welles ever made, largely because his chosen satirical targets required him to depart from from his usual style of directing, shot-making, and editing to either ape styles unlike his own (the New Wave stuff) or innovate entire new ones (the constantly intercutting, immediate mockumentary style) to achieve what he needed to. The Hannaford party scenes are a stunning flood of bon mots about Hannaford’s (and thus Welles’) life and work and about movies and Hollywood and humanity in general, each one cleverer than even the cleverest snatch of dialogue in a dozen other movies and also presented by Welles as taking the piss out of people impressed by such bon mots.

And even if “The Other Side of the Wind” is intended as a film-within-a-film send-up of Bergman-esque experiential art films, it’s better than all but the best of those films at being that. Its shots are wondrously composed, each frame a pure artistic creation by Welles and his cameraman/cinematographer Gary Graver (who shot B-movies and even porn films to make enough money to allow him to keep working with Welles on this movie). There are many beguiling reflection, mirror, and window shots of Dale’s pursuit of the woman (again, for a director who resisted the suggestion that his movies were mirrors on his own life, Welles constantly used and indeed mastered the symbolically charged use of mirrors in cinematography). There’s a bathroom orgy sequence, and an erotically impressionistic sex scene in a car on a rainy night (an incredible, gorgeous sequence which was among the AV Club’s film scenes of the year). Welles was a bit of a prude with his films, and considered sexuality and nudity to be unnecessary distractions from the fundaments of the narrative, but in copying the explicit content of New Wave film, he opens the floodgates on a rampant sensuality that was previously compressed into his camera’s voyeuristic gaze. “Is cinema a phallus?” one of the film freaks asks Hannaford at one point, and for Welles, it certainly is in this scene.

Most of all, The Other Side of the Wind sounds like a mess, but it isn’t. Or it is, but in a focused, intentional way that always makes perfect sense and always has its well-considered reasons. As is demonstrated (along with many of the other details of the production and Welles’ thinking about the film) in Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead which accompanied the film’s Netflix release, Welles worked in a manner that often seemed haphazard or improvised (a criticism also levelled at Hannaford in the film), preferring to leave room for serendipitous moments of magic that were the heart of filmmaker for him (which he called “divine accidents”). He could also be cryptic or poetically vague when describing what his films were to be about: “This film is about the love of death”, he said of The Other Side of the Wind (the title itself is entirely cryptic, too), not exactly a pitch finely-tuned to appeal to a studio suit concerned with box office grosses.

But Welles always had a clear idea in his own capacious brain of what the final film should look like, even if his inability or (more likely) unwillingness to share the entirety of that vision with his collaborators could prove damagingly frustrating. Is this final, released version of The Other Side of the Wind, based on some of the master’s own rough assemblies and surviving instructions and guidelines, the film Orson Welles had in his head before he died? Of course we can’t know. But as a document of a master filmmaker’s obsessions and frustrations, of his craft and his humour and his aesthetic prankster’s energy, The Other Side of the Wind is tremendous.

This film might have come to life as a tiresome inside joke about the Hollywood glitterati who showered him with praise and awards for his past work but wouldn’t pony up for his future work, the talented young filmmakers who worshipped him while borrowing his techniques and style and surpassing his commercial success, the cinephiles who embalmed his achievements with self-serving treatises but did not create films of their own (Bogdanovich did the first before doing the second, typifying Welles’ appreciation and resentment of his young acolyte). But instead this film is a deceptively ambitious closing statement on a remarkable, turbulent career in filmmaking, a masterpiece about reaching your end with your self-critical faculties firing at all cylinders but with your legacy in doubt and ultimately in the hands of others, who will inevitably betray you in ways both small and large, unintentional and malicious, sadly unjust and entirely deserved. It’s a film about failure and tragedy, and it’s a gigantic, inspiring success. Whatever the particulars, that much had to be the intent of Orson Welles with The Other Side of the Wind, at the very least.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Free Solo

December 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Free Solo (2018; Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin)

Imagine, if you will, a remarkable, history-making, trailblazing human physical achievement, like the moon landing or the climbing of Mount Everest or flying across the Atlantic. Now imagine that achievement, this feat that no living person has done before, being filmed in real time, from numerous angles visual, emotional, and psychological. No matter how little one may know or comprehend about the chosen athletic discipline, marginal and niche-ish as it may be, it is possible from the filmed document to recognize the tremendous expertise, skill, effort, and mental focus required to do what none believed to be possible to achieve nor even remotely advisable to try, and, furthermore, why the document’s subject was the one to achieve it.

Free Solo is that document, Alex Honnold is that subject, and his free solo climb (ie. ascension alone, without the support of ropes, harnesses, other climbers, or any safety equipment whatsoever) of the iconic 3,000-foot granite rock face of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park is that achievement. Had Free Solo‘s directors, married couple and climbing film vets Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, simply filmed Honnold’s incredible climb (though even that wouldn’t have been simple in any way, in technical terms), this would be a remarkable film. But Free Solo is an impeccably crafted documentary narrative, giving a rounded perspective on Honnold’s peculiar history and personality and how it relates to his nigh-on suicidal free climbling goals. In doing so, the film provides some of the best insight one could ask for into the psychology and mental processes of high-achievement athletes.

Honnold performed his climb in June of 2017 (and if you think that knowing that he survives and succeeds spoils the vertiginous tension of his climactic assault on El Cap in the film, you would not be correct). Before showing us the fateful climb itself, Free Solo details Honnold’s preparations, his rope-assisted practice climbs, his injuries and false-start tribulations, his personal history and predilections, and his relationships. His girlfriend Sanni, his friend and climbing partner Tommy Caldwell (who has free-climbed alternate routes on El Cap in tandem with other climbers, including with Honnold earlier this year), and his acquaintances in Chin’s film crew all speak about the mortal danger attending free solo climbing, and how they all cope with the knowledge and emotional baggage of Honnold potentially falling to his death at any moment before their eyes (and lenses). For Chin and the film crew, the life-and-death stakes add a heavy new dimension to the standard wall-breaking post-modern thematic dilemma of the documentary filmmaker whose use of the camera interferes with the life of the subject. Chin and the others worry that if their climbing cameramen, remote cameras, and drones even slightly disrupt Honnold’s mental concentration or physical control, it could cost him his life.

That single-minded focus and control that Alex Honnold possesses, he tells the documentarians and other people appearing in the film, derive from his youth as a brainy loner with maladjusted, emotionally uncommunicative parents (he talks revealingly about how he had to teach himself to hug at age 23 or so). Both the mental capacity to focus on the herculean task of free solo climbing sheer rock walls (which involves rehearsing, taking detailed notes on, and memorizing grips, holds, and body shifts along every inch of the climbing route) and the psychological contortions required to compartmentalize the imminent threat of death should even the slightest thing go wrong are understood by Honnold to be essential to achieving his El Cap ascent.

But they are also personality flaws that interfere with his life and relationships when not climbing, a lifestyle which, although at his high level of the sport provides him with an income that he compares to that of “a moderately successful dentist”, involves constant travel and little in the way of settling down (he lives out of a van, and we see him eating straight out of a frying pan or a pot on a few occasions). Sanni is Honnold’s first steady girlfriend for some time, if not ever, and Free Solo is very honest in showing her struggles with his social difficulties and with the decently strong chance that he will one day die while climbing. This idea that what makes a person great at a certain sporting pursuit also renders them ill-equipped to live healthily in the real world is reminiscent of a similar contention in Bobby Fischer vs. the World (discussed in my review of the lesser fictionalized film version of his story, Pawn Sacrifice), but gives Free Solo a depth of insight that goes unlooked-for in niche extreme-sport films of this sort, and really in most documentaries in general.

But Free Solo is ultimately a spectacular, visceral document of an astounding physical feat and it never forgets that. Honnold’s climactic climb is shot from vertiginous angles gazing down past his body clinging to the rock, with thousands of feet of empty space between him and the ground (it might be a bit late in its release to make it happen, but Free Solo is the rare documentary that demands a big cinema screen). Marco Beltrami’s pulse-quickening score and anxious reaction shots from the ground heighten the tension to an almost unbearable pitch, as Honnold carefully, methodically, powerfully moves across and up the Nose of El Capitan. Especially anxious acrophobes should be warned away entirely, but even those who think themselves reasonably secure with precarious heights will find their palms growing sweaty watching Honnold work quite literally without a net. The effect is similar to that caused by the 3D simulated views over the upper edge of the World Trade Center towers in Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, only Alex Honnold’s gravity-defying feat had no CG assist as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s did.

Free Solo also has some superb elements of editing and construction, making not only the larger stakes but also the specific challenges and geography of El Capitan clear and obvious even to rock climbing neophytes. It heightens what is a highly specific feat in a niche sport into something far grander by demonstrating just how it is grand. But more than anything, this film details, with skill and intelligence and finally with transcendent spectacle, how and why Alex Honnold could do this remarkable thing. Free Solo shows us what it means to him to free climb El Capitan, and that gives us some idea of what it should mean to us.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: Mission: Impossible – Fallout

December 22, 2018 Leave a comment

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018; Directed by Christopher McQuarrie)

As star of the Mission: Impossible movies, Tom Cruise has a way of winning begrudging admiration for bluntly effective single-use instruments. Not every actor is a Swiss army knife in the manner of Daniel Day-Lewis or Cate Blanchett or Christian Bale or Meryl Streep, capable of performing convincing Method-ish transformations into any number of roles, historical figures, or human archetypes (heck, the vast majority of thespians are not). Neither is every actor capable of transforming convincing into a human being at all, of tapping believably into that swirling cocktail of hopes and fears and flaws and weird persisting beauty that unites all of us intelligent limited-hair apes in our uncomfortable shared carpool on this ailing planet.

You don’t look to Tom Cruise for any of those things. For a time, Cruise and the filmmakers he worked with entertained notions that realistic nuance, empathy, and believable human emotion in general were things that he could do. Smart, canny filmmakers did employ Cruise in roles that turned his oppressive image and limited range to their films’ advantage: Paul Thomas Anderson found cracked-facade pathos in Cruise’s aggressive performative masculinity for Magnolia, Ben Stiller turned that same quality to absurd self-parodying comic heights in Tropic Thunder, and that most penetratively perceptive of film auteurs, Stanley Kubrick, used Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s then-fracturing semi-sham of a marriage as raw material for his final film about a fracturing semi-sham of a marriage, Eyes Wide Shut.

But somewhere between these sort of roles and the public humiliation of the revelation of the depths of weirdness surrounding Cruise’s involvement in the Church of Scientology, and around the time Cruise turned 50, he seems to have decided to embrace his chosen calling as a ridiculously, inhumanly driven action-movie avatar. With the certain wisdom of age and experience and perhaps also with the acquired self-perception of the ravenous devourer of film that his reputation has painted him as, Cruise has accepted that he will always be at his best fighting and shooting guns and driving cars really fast and, yes, running really hard, with brief interludes of concentrated examination of electronic info-screens, comic banter with sidekicks, and tearful scenes with female (always female, and don’t you forget it!) love interests. This is what Tom Cruise was meant to do. He’s going to do it and you’d better like it.

This is why a superior espionage-action blockbuster like Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the ideal vehicle for Cruise at this point of his career, and maybe at any point. It reduces his functions as a performer to just those which he is successful at, as enumerated above, at the exclusion of any others that he may be tempted to try his hand at, most likely less successfully. As producer of Fallout as well as its star, Cruise can apply the obsessive-compulsive drive so fully embodied in that famous all-out sprint of his (which he does in this film over London rooftops with a broken ankle, as if for emphasis) to a full production. Along with key collaborating director Christopher McQuarrie (who also helmed the last M:I film, Rogue Nation and Cruise’s Jack Reacher vehicle), Cruise sees to it that Fallout is, like himself, a singular-focused blunt instrument of pure, unalloyed big-budget entertainment.

Fallout follows Rogue Nation with what I take to be some measure of narrative continuity; I can’t say so from personal experience, having not seen that last installment (truth be told, I’ve only seen Brad Bird’s kinetic Ghost Protocol and Brian DePalma’s franchise opener, but this is the kind of franchise you can drop in and out of without missing much in the way of context). Cruise’s fellow Impossible Missions Force (IMF) squad members – Simon Pegg’s Benji and Ving Rhames’ Luther, as well as bossman Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) – return, as does sometimes-ally and former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and anarcho-terrorist antagonist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, a far more intense and compelling actor than this material deserves). Lane’s shadowy network of terroristic Apostles have evidently stolen plutonium cores and have the means to install it in nuclear devices that they plan to set off somewhere in the world. Joined by CIA assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill, an object so blunt as to make Cruise seem complex and sophisticated in comparison), Cruise’s super-agent Ethan Hunt must stop the nuclear plot in a globe-trotting adventure from Berlin to Paris to London to the mountains of Kashmir (the latter actually shot in New Zealand).

There’s piles of spy movie standbys on display, double- and triple-crosses (sometimes in the same scene) and disguises and rendezvous with femmes fatale (namely Vanessa Kirby’s inscrutable White Widow) and digital readout bomb countdowns and fleeting digressions on the ethics of taking a life to save hundreds, thousands, or millions more. But the reason you’ll want to see Fallout is for its utterly spectacular, bar-raising action sequences, mostly achieved with old-fashioned practical rigs and absolutely next-level stunt work, per Cruise’s fanatical insistence on realism. Cruise leads from the front in the matters, for example having trained relentlessly so that he could himself perform a HALO skydive over Paris for a white-knuckle aerial sequence early in the film (the camera operator leaps with him, leading to a stunning shot as Cruise follows the plunging camera out the back of the airplane).

The HALO jump scene only scratches the surface of Fallout‘s incredible action. A bruising, exclamatory dust-up in a bathroom pitting Hunt and Walker against Liang Yang’s supposed extremist agent John Lark features some remarkable fight choreography. A climactic helicopter chase over snowy peaks (with Cruise flying the chopper himself, because of course he does) manages to be tense and exciting, which you might not think would be possible for that particular type of aerial conveyance but assuredly is (do a hang-glider chase next!). Two consecutive car-and-motorcycle chases through the streets of Paris seem almost like footnotes to mention after the high quality of the rest of the action, but the first one in particular deserves to be ranked among the best vehicular pursuit sequences in cinematic history.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout likewise demands attention as a candidate for one of the finest pure action blockbusters ever created, and producer and star Tom Cruise deserves ample credit for that. The man takes a lot of guff as a performer and public figure, and this review has been no exception. But kudos are also due for what he does well: entertain the captive masses as an action figure of singular focus and directness. Fallout has just enough plot to cohere as a movie and just enough in its head and its heart not to lose our attention in between its riveting action spectacles. It doesn’t bother with much else, nor should it. Like Tom Cruise, when it’s time to run, this movie breaks into a full sprint. Let’s appreciate the dedication to the craft of hitting that big nail square on the head as hard as possible. It’s not as easy as it might seem.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: BlacKkKlansman

December 19, 2018 Leave a comment

BlacKkKlansman (2018; Directed by Spike Lee)

Spike Lee surely must be master of the problematic nearly-great film. One of the most talented American cinematic craftsmen and capable ideological disseminators of his generation, Lee has nonetheless made frustratingly few above-average films over the past quarter-century. It’s always difficult to diagnose from a remove, but the Spike Lee joints that climb close to greatness since his early-’90s peak – Bamboozled, The 25th Hour, Inside Man, his definitive Hurricane Katrina HBO documentary series When the Levees Broke – accomplish much only to be frustratingly hamstrung by something: generic convention, low-rent production, thwarted ambition, a questionable choice or five. But sometimes that something is very obviously Lee himself, polemically preening and chest-beating and double-underlining his intentions and pushing his luck too far, finally.

BlacKkKlansman nearly makes it to the rarified heights of Lee’s best work (by which we mean Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, though I’m working by reputation alone since I am mortified to admit that I haven’t yet seen either of them to remedy that particular gap in my film history knowledge), only to badly miss its landing. It can be argued, as Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley did on Twitter upon the film’s release in August, that it’s only by a series of dishonest fabrications and general political wishy-washiness that BlacKkKlansman even approaches those heights. We can consider those complaints in due time as well, and indeed the film’s problems vis-à-vis its supposed “true story”, though strictly speaking lying outside the textual purview itself, are inextricable from the elements of the film text that kneecap its stronger aspects.

BlacKkKlansman is based on the memoir of African-American undercover cop Ron Stallworth (played here by John David Washington). A fresh addition to the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, Stallworth chafes at his rookie assignment to the records room and the casual anti-black bigotry of white officers. He presses Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) to use him on undercover work, which the chief eventually does, but only to run intelligence against local black activist groups and surveil a speech in town by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, now going by the Africanized name Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins). Though he is there to sniff out potential black radicalism and threats of insurrectionist violence (the real Stallworth infiltrated and destabilized radical groups along the lines of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program, as Riley notes but Lee does not), Stallworth has a sort of stealth awakening listening to Ture’s words about historical and current oppression of African-Americans. He also meets and becomes involved with a local college’s black student body president and activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), who doesn’t know he’s a “pig” and would be quick to dump his cop ass if she did.

Perhaps impelled by Ture’s ideas but also seemingly on a random whim (more than a few plot points here feel this way, to be frank), Stallworth dials up the phone number of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter advertised in the newspaper and pretends to be a virulently racist white man (unfortunately while using his real name) who is interested in joining what initiates call “the Organization”. He strikes up a rapport with contacts by repeating bigoted Klan-friendly talking points and even applies for membership, but cannot infiltrate the group in person, for obvious reasons. Fellow undercover detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) attends Klan meet-ups and ceremonies in his place, though Flip’s being Jewish introduces another wrinkle of tension to his encounters with the anti-semitic Klansmen. Together, Ron and Flip get an inside view of “the Organization”, and uncover members in sensitive military and national-security positions as well as a deadly plot against Patrice and her fellow black activists, even as Ron becomes telephone pals with the KKK’s Grand Wizard and National Director David Duke (Topher Grace), who plans to visit Colorado Springs for his prized new recruit’s initiation.

Broadly speaking, this is some of Spike Lee’s strongest material in years, and BlacKkKlansman‘s core premise is suffused with dramatic irony and tension that proves both entertaining and productive for raising ideas about the African-American struggle for social justice. In a conversation with Ron, Patrice introduces W.E.B. Du Bois’ conception of Black American identity as a kind of double consciousness, an internal psychological and identitarian cleavage in every African-American body between the American ideal of citizenship (liberty, justice, inalienable rights) and the oppressive reality of life in American as a black person (where the rights that are inalienable for white folks are consistently denied to black folks, whether in law, in systemic tendencies, or in social conditioning and practices).

BlacKkKlansman‘s layered ironies and juxtaposed ideas are grounded in double consciousness. Ron and Flip both find the beliefs and rhetoric of the KKK deplorable, but Washington and especially Driver slip so convincingly into performing the role of white supremacist that they bamboozle the targets of their investigation and even trouble the audience with the thought that they might really mean it. Both men have internalized the language of bigotry that they hear around them (and sometimes about them) in their country, and when they project it, it is readily believed. There is a double consciousness to this performance, and performance it is, as signaled firmly by Lee in the film’s opening sequence, with Alec Baldwin as a Klan propagandist recording polemic for the group and frequently breaking the litany of racism with actorly touches like enunciation exercises and line checks. This double consciousness is even legible in the figure of David Duke, who presents a well-dressed professional corporate front to the Klan as an extended PR campaign but can slip with sinister ease into the worst racist tropes in a manner made only more unsettling by the inspired casting of Grace, who presents as an amiable Eric Foreman all-grown-up before slipping on the robe and hood.

BlacKkKlansman‘s employment of Du Bois’ double consciousness reaches a virtuoso crescendo in the film’s centerpiece sequence (and one of the AV Club’s film scenes of the year). Lee crosscuts between Flip’s Klan initiation ceremony as Racist Ron, which includes a screening of D.W. Griffith’s seminal 1915 KKK propaganda epic The Birth of a Nation, and a speech about the heinous and contemporaneous 1916 lynching of African-American Jesse Washington made to Patrice’s activist group by a witness to it, Jerome Turner (played by civil rights veteran Harry Belafonte, no less). Turner details the inhuman torture, mutilations, and execution of Washington by a white mob, the carnivalesque atmosphere that accompanied it (photos were taken of the lynching and souvenir postcards were sold), and the role of Griffith’s blockbuster film (“history written with lightning”, as President Woodrow Wilson praised it) in rejuvenating the Klan and emboldening its attacks on the black way of life, while Flip/Ron’s Klan confrères hoot and holler approvingly at a KKK lynching depicted heroically in Birth of a Nation. Lee closes the scene with contending chants of “black power” and “white power” at each event, his crosscutting (a filmic technique pioneered by Griffith in Birth of a Nation, as AV Club’s Jesse Hassenger notes in its Scenes of the Year entry) becoming a counterattacking weapon against the racist cinematic propaganda enshrined at the heart of American movie history by Griffith while also noting the intractable persistence of the racial divisions that animated that film and define American society down to today.

“Propaganda” is a key term, because for all of its considerable strengths, BlacKkKlansman is partly undone by a turn towards the propagandistic, complete with the form’s fabrications of convenience and self-favourable framings. For all of its compelling subtextual applications of double consciousness, the forefront textual use of it is to consider, and ultimately provide a stamp of thoughtful approval to, Ron Stallworth’s contradictory attempt to turn the authority and power of the police towards social justice goals. Boots Riley comes down particularly hard on this element of BlacKkKlansman, criticizing the script’s inventions and elisions of Stallworth’s work: he was undercover in radical black organizations for not one night but three years and did not begin his Klan infiltration until 1979, not in 1972; his white undercover partner was not Jewish, there was no ticking-bomb terrorist threat by the KKK he investigated as the film’s climax depicts, and a goofy feel-good coda sting on a bigoted white cop did not happen.

According to Riley, much of what BlacKkKlansman shows as going on behind the scenes in its Klan investigation could not happen: Black Lives Matter and related social justice spearheaders continue to spotlight police profiling and oppression of and violence towards African-Americans in the country of today, as well as law enforcement’s comparative kid gloves approach towards hard-right groups who incite and commit violent acts with far greater regularity. Riley firmly believes and expresses his belief that the police are not on the same side as progressive black social activists, and notes suggestively that Spike Lee has been paid by the NYPD to help improve their image with black communities. BlacKkKlansman is premised on the idea that the police not only can and should but have previously busted up racist organizations in a humbly semi-enlightened effort to be social justice warriors. Riley argues it’s a lie, and despite Lee’s protestations, it’s hard to learn much about the subject and say that he’s entirely wrong.

Lee mildly fudges his film’s true-to-life claims with an opening title card in his idiomatic vernacular: “Based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”. But BlacKkKlansman turns from polemical fictionalization to sober, pointed documentary in a startling and more than a little off-putting whiplash switch at its conclusion. The film gives way to news footage of the August 2017 far-right march in Charlottesville, Virginia (BlacKkKlansman‘s release was timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the event that shocked the country), reports of the murder of liberal counterprotestor Heather Heyer that weekend, and President Donald Trump’s infamous hood-lifting moment in which he informed the press that some of the tiki-torch-wielding neo-nazi marchers were “very good people”. The real David Duke even makes an appearance, his continued presence as a public figure proving that Stallworth’s duping of him was of only marginal use, in the end.

BlacKkKlansman has its problems beyond its predilection towards propaganda and provocation. The screenplay by Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Wilmott shows a fondness for silly, borderline-cartoon supporting characters (like Ashlie Atkinson’s Connie, the ebullient but virulently racist wife of Jasper Pääkkönen’s hostile Klan member Felix who cannot wait to be the virginal white female rape victim in a vigilante lynching fantasy), and overemphasizes beats that another filmmaker might have left respectfully subtle and implied. Wilmott’s screenwriting credit calls to mind his politically challenging but inescapably cheap (in all senses of the word) satirical mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (which Lee produced), and BlacKkKlansman contains far more of that film’s cornpone carnival-barker tone than is good for it (though I laughed at the callback to Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s immortal catchphrase from The Wire, his early cameo including it takes one out of the film right at its beginning).

But ultimately BlacKkKlansman is afflicted with a larger, self-hampering double consciousness. It is grounded in a deep knowledge of African-American history and politics and considerable filmic craft and film-history literacy. In the memorable Birth of a Nation montage sequence, Lee makes a powerful audio-visual argument about how racial inequality is reinforced and spread. It leans towards manipulative fabrications on top of established fact to strengthen its points and concludes its essentially comedic story with feel-good limited triumphs and solidarity while paying lip service to the ingrained inequity and cover-ups endemic to the system. But it renders these narratively-earned victories entirely pyrrhic with its concluding documentarian evocation of the continued and even increased relevance of far-right racism of the Klan sort. The struggle, of course, always continues, and racism, in America as elsewhere in the world, persists and must continue to be fought. But just how it should be fought is a matter that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, as potent and effective as it can be at its best, proves frustratingly inconsistent, obtuse, and disingenuous about.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

December 17, 2018 1 comment

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018; Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an out-of-left-field triumph. It is unquestionably the best animated film of the year, likely the best comic-book superhero movie of the year (no mean feat in a year including the confident and nuanced Black Panther), and maybe the best comedy of the year, too. Frankly, this exciting, innovative, hilarious, and moving film ought to be in the conversation for one of the best films of the year, period.

It really shouldn’t be, at first glance. It’s an animated spin-off of Sony’s Spider-Man franchise (more the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire/Kirsten Dunst trilogy that ended a decade ago – and whose high and low moments are shouted out in the introductory passage – than the largely unloved Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield/Emma Stone reboot that followed it), which has grown so moribund that they booted its latest restart beneath the comforting, predominantly unchallenging Marvel Cinematic Universe umbrella. Generally, movies like this one are the stuff of straight-to-home-video fodder (back when there was such a thing as home video to go straight to), and moving the property under the aegis of Sony Pictures Animation, whose most notable releases these days are the Hotel Transylvania movies, hardly inspired further confidence. But from such middling origins comes one of the most astonishing animated films you will see this year, or any year.220px-spider-man_into_the_spider-verse_282018_poster29

It’s tempting to look solely at two names in the credits as difference-makers: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, writer-directors of The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street and its sequel 22 Jump Street, and the cult-classic animated series Clone High, produced Into the Spider-Verse, and Lord wrote the story and co-penned the screenplay (with 22 Jump Street writer Rodney Rothman, who co-directs the film with Peter Ramsey and Bob Persichetti). Feature animation is a highly collaboration medium, even more so than live-action filmmaking, and resists auteur theory absolutes, but Into the Spider-Verse is a Lord/Miller joint all the damn way: frenetic action, whipcracking comedic wit, dense, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it referentiality, and strong, surprisingly affecting thematic surges. Indeed, it contains a hefty helping of repurposed elements of the duo’s feature breakthrough and notable past Sony Pictures Animation success Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It borrows that film’s central thematic and emotional relationship between a rebellious, creative son and a more traditional, duty-bound father, as well as at least a trio of specific beats: silly names for techno-McGuffins (in Cloudy, a key device with the unpronouncable acronym FLDSMDFR; here, a kill-program-equipped USB stick called a Goober), relatably mundane computer-age frustrations in the midst of high-intrigue plot suspense (in Cloudy, a hilarious scene of talking a clueless technophobe through attaching a file to an email; here, cracking into an evil scientist’s computer only to be frustrated by her hopelessly cluttered desktop), and high-tech labs accessed through unassuming backyard structures (in Cloudy, an outhouse; here, a garden shed).

This is not to say that Into the Spider-Verse is anything like a retread of its various influences and sources. This is a blazingly inventive movie, visually innovative and impressively original in adapting the look and feel of comic books to the screen: panel borders, thought bubbles and boxes, and onscreen onomatopoaeic sound-effects text flit cleverly by, but are also used to amplify and emphasize story and emotional moments. This may sound like Ang Lee’s maligned editing methods in Hulk, but I can assure you it works far better. And added to it are flickering and pulsating bursts of pop-art psychedelia worthy of the most incredibly imaginative art of late Marvel Comics co-founder Steve Ditko (like his one-time creative partner who also died this year, Marvel movie cameo king Stan Lee, Ditko gets a tribute card at the end of the credits).

If Into the Spider-Verse was only saturated with visual astonishments, dotted with breathless action sequences, and consistently blessed with impeccable comic timing, it would be a fun and noteworthy rainbow-candy trifle that would still earn plaudits for its sheer energy and joy. But what makes it a great cinematic experience is how it tells an involving, potent story with beautifully-pitched emotional beats for even its minor characters, all while acting as a effluent visual summary of the Spider-Man character and of comic book history alike (it opens, after all, with the familiar Comics Code Authority seal of approval that was emblazoned on comic books for almost half a century). Its technicolour exhilarations are built on strong foundations of thematic and emotional intelligence.

Into the Spider-Verse employs multiverse theory to cover numerous versions of Spider-Man existing in multiple dimensions, but its focal point is biracial Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore). A fairly typical teenager with some talent as a graffiti artist (the art form’s jagged coloured shapes and sprayed dots provide a strong anchor point for the film’s astounding multidimensional-glitch visual effects), he is encouraged in this countercultural artistic vein by his “cool” Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), whose influence on Miles is disapproved of by the boy’s cop father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry, doing a lovely job giving depth and contours to a character largely adapted from Mr. T’s father/cop Earl in Cloudy), a disapproval that is more right than the father can know (though to say more is to say too much). Miles is made to attend a prestigious boarding school that is not quite his speed and struggles to live up to his father’s high (but loving) expectations for him (Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is assigned for reading and an essay as a nod to these), but his adjustment pains at school are quite suddenly made far worse by a fateful bite from a radioactive spider.

Miles’ awkward puberty-metaphor discoveries of his body’s new abilities and the identity tug of war between the clashing poles of his two male authority figures are soon complicated by his inculcation in a villainous reality-threatening scheme of multidimensional proportions. Beneath Brooklyn, he stumbles upon Spider-Man (Chris Pine) battling a massive Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone) in an attempt to deactivate a huge particle supercollider funded by imposing crime lord Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Because this is a superhero film in 2018, even this hulking, square-shaped personification of the crooked crossroads between capitalism and organized crime has an understandable and even sympathetic motivation for fracturing the space-time continuum: Kingpin is seeking to locate and bring back versions of his wife and son, dead in his own dimension, from another one. He has no qualms about doing anything necessary to get what he’s after, and his determination costs the established Peter Parker/Spider-Man his life.

Kingpin’s dimensional portal-opening has unintended consequences, and Miles’ world soon includes more Spider-Beings than it really has room for, his own hesitant, unsure Spider-Self included. He first meets Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), who is like the idealized and heroic Spidey from Miles’ own dimension in most ways, but has let himself go physically, morally, and personally after getting divorced from the love of his life, Mary Jane (Zoë Kravitz). He wears sweatpants for most of his early scenes as a marker of his apathy and dissolution.

Peter B. nonetheless grudgingly accepts Miles’ aid in obtaining a new kill-program USB Goober to neutralize Kingpin’s collider and allow him to return to his own dimension, and becomes a reluctant semi-mentor to the fledgling Spider-Miles. They are soon enough joined by white-hooded teen Gwen Stacy, a.k.a. Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) from another dimension, who met Miles at his school in disguise, and a trio of other multiverse Spideys: 1930s-vintage black-and-white private detective Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage living his best voice-acting life: “Wherever I go, the wind follows. And the wind… smells like rain”), Kawaii tween Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her symbiotic Spider-Bot biomech suit, and cartoon pig Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), who wallops bad guys with oversized mallets and anvils. Covering Shadow-type noir-detective comics, manga and anime, and classic Looney Tunes cartoons, these supporting characters provide knowing genre nods, flashes of those generic animation styles, as well as a support squad for the embryonic Spider-Miles in his efforts to thwart Kingpin.

Despite all of this busy background colour and detail (and even more than previous Lord/Miller-verse efforts, this film is chock-a-block with them), Into the Spider-Verse is simply and effectively about a pretty normal young boy (radioactive spider bite aside) working out who he is and who he wants to be in relation to the many influences and reference-points in his life. In this way, Into the Spider-Verse‘s thematic hybrid of competing traditional roles of African-American masculinity and dazzling cornucopia of multiverse cultural elements constitute a smart and convincing approximation of the complex web of identity-formation influences that can so confuse and fragment young people (young males, especially) in our oversaturated post-capitalist milieu. We live in a multiverse already, in cultural terms, Lord and Rothman’s script suggests. Little wonder that no one, especially the young and impressionable, can make sense of it.

But Miles Morales does find a way to make sense of it, a way to embrace both the great power and the great responsibility of being Spider-Man just as we must all embrace adult citizenship in a globe-spanning society of rapid change, complication, and uncertainty. Envisioned and metaphorized as a very literal but also highly figurative leap of faith, Miles’ awakening plunge is a blazingly memorable sequence, richly earned by the development and growth of character and themes up to that moment and featuring one particular adaptation of comic-book visual language to cinematic technique that acts as a spectacular, even poetic, elevation (as well as being given a banging soundtrack from Blackway & Black Caviar). In the midst of such overwhelming visual spectacle and imagination, this leap might seem like a sop to traditional blockbuster conventions. But like the rest of the remarkable, wonderful Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, this moment rewires or resequences those conventions. Indeed, this movie acts on the the superhero genre, on feature animation, and indeed on Hollywood movies as a whole like the bite of a radioactive spider: it injects them with new powers and possibilities, and if we’re lucky, none of them will ever be the same.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Death of Stalin

December 5, 2018 Leave a comment

The Death of Stalin (2017; Directed by Armando Iannucci)

In her 1963 book on the trial of the Nazi German SS commander and Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, political thinker Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” to describe the species of dumb quotidian striving and uncritical order-following that characterized Eichmann’s participation in the Final Solution. The idea of the banality of evil is sometimes misquoted and very frequently misapplied, and was and is quite controversial in philosophical circles. However, it usefully pinpointed in Arendt’s subject Eichmann a sort of unremarkable normality, a featureless bureaucratic ordinariness that, through a thoughtless disengagement from the harsh realities that lay behind his career-driven pencil-pushing actions, was complicit in terrible, terrible things. Arendt’s conclusion was that Eichmann did evil, but was not evil. Whatever problems this concept presents, the banality of evil focuses on an important contradiction that animates modern political action: what can appear professional, customary, and everyday can in truth be working towards the very worst, the most evil, of outcomes.

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a raucously funny but quietly vicious extrapolation on the banality of evil with a far keener eye for the ridiculous, but no less ghastly, fundaments of oppressive totalitarianism. Call it a comic treatise on the absurdity of evil, if you will, a farcical satire about the frantic power struggle for primacy at the top of government of the Soviet Union after the demise of the iron-willed tyrant Joseph Stalin. Despite the sharp-tongued banter, selfish scheming, and copious bumbling on the part of the succeeding members of the Central Committee, however, horrors take place, crimes against humanity are committed, lives are altered, destroyed, or brutally ended, even within the rarified heights of the Politburo. We laugh while the blood flows, and perhaps the oxygen from the laughter makes its sick colour all the more vivid.

The Scottish-Italian Iannucci has ramped up to The Death of Stalin by establishing himself as one of the sharpest satirists of back-room political operations in the English-speaking world. At the BBC, he co-created Steve Coogan’s iconically mediocre television presenter caricature Alan Partridge (along with Coogan and future Four Lions director Chris Morris), then on the sitcom The Thick of It (and its accompanying movie In the Loop) unleashed the verbal-bomb-throwing of Peter Capaldi’s aggro political operative Malcolm Tucker on unsuspecting audiences. He crossed the Atlantic to conquer American comedy, too, creating and showrunning the early seasons of HBO’s White House satire Veep and winning a pair of Emmys for his trouble.

In Iannucci’s closed backrooms of power, whipsmart tongue-lashings greet scandals and missteps and PR disasters and not-infrequent bad intentions. It can be tempting to read Iannucci’s satires, with the potent rudeness of their most cynical and inhuman characters, through the lens of laments for political incivility. There is, after all, an entire legacy-media constituency dedicated to the persistent idea that the nasty, destructive partisanship of American politics in particular could be convincingly defused (ideological differences be damned) if everyone could just be nicer to each other. Lucrative punditry sinecures await any and all willing to parrot such a line of thought, and there are not a few such voices in the American media still labouring under the assumption that this symptomatic lack of politeness is the real problem with Donald Trump (and not his stupid, mean, greedy, prejudiced awfulness as a person).

But Armando Iannucci will wring out laughs at the bickering and sideswiping of the powerful before turning our attention to the terrible meat-hook realities that lie at behind the rude spewing. In The Death of Stalin, this approach constitutes the blackest of dark comedies about the shabby cheapness of human mortality: whether of a towering political leader like the eponymous expiring Man of Steel or of the millions of people, specific and generalized, whose lives he claimed in the Soviet Union and beyond. When Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a stroke after a night of carousing with his Central Committee cronies, he is found with his bowels voided on the carpet, and is hauled to what will be his deathbed by those same cronies, who bumble and fumble the organization of even this simple task, leading to some satisfying slapstick as the corpus of the dictator is dragged over one of their own bodies to rest on the sheets.

Iannucci revels in both the absurdity and the bruality of Stalinist Russia, and finds those characteristics inextricably entwined. He includes (and compresses and dramatizes, yes) comically absurd and sharply ironic real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the ludicrous whims of Stalin and how it affects those around them, who are in terror for their lives should they offend the leader. The film opens with a classical concerto performance broadcast on state radio that Stalin decides that he wants a recording of. The harrassed program director (Paddy Considine) finds that the performance was not recorded, and hastily, desperately reconvenes the musicians and the resistant pianist (Olga Kurylenko) to play the concerto again, this time to record. After Stalin’s non-fatal stroke, his flunkies must scramble around Moscow to collect even retired, inexperienced, or incompetent doctors to treat him, as the paranoid General Secretary had the city’s best doctors (mostly Jews, natch) put to death for supposedly plotting against him.

More darkly, a few scenes take place in a secret interrogation and execution facility of the Stalinist secret police, the NKVD, where detained persons are rushed about to torture or imprisonment, and the gunshots of death sentences ring out as a constant background score. Stalin’s right-hand man in these manners, the enforcer of his enemies lists and the primary bureaucrat responsible for the ongoing reign of terror, is his fellow Georgian Lavrentiy Beria (the great Simon Russell Beale), who is also at the heart of the jockeying intrigues that follow the General Secretary’s death (Beria was also a serial sexual predator, using his position at the head of the NKVD to commit numerous rapes, which this film makes very clear).

Although Stalin’s official successor to the Secretariat is the dim, vain, and malleable Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Beria and Nikita Khruschev, played by Steve Buscemi (who seems born to spew Iannucci’s inspired invective) in a counter-intuitive masterstroke of casting, are the real contenders for the throne. The veteran diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, who is in a supporting role but is granted a clutch of moments to demonstrate his absolute expertise of comic timing and performance) plays a key role as an elder statesman kingmaker (though he was just spared the wrath of the enemies list by his old boss croaking), as does the spiky, bloody-minded WWII hero and head of the Red Army, General Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Stalin’s children are kicking around, too, but neither the paralyzed-by-woe Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) or the foolish, preening, conspiracy-minded Vasily (Rupert Friend) are real factors in the power transfer.

The collision of these outsized, overtly hostile personalities makes for frequent great comedy. The Death of Stalin is pitilessly hilarious, and Iannucci facilitates and maximizes this hilarity in numerous masterful ways, from the writing (of course) to the you-are-there mockumentary cinematography to the irony-laced editing to the inspired decision to allow his actors to speak in their native accents, rather than some forced Russian-accented English, to allow a full range for their natural timing and expression (Buscemi’s clipped Italian-American force and Isaacs’ Liverpudlian flintiness define their characters essentially as well as deliver their lines to best effect).

But it is worth asking if The Death of Stalin hits the ideal notes in relation to the murderous (indeed, nigh-on genocidal) authoritarianism of its setting and subject. Though Iannucci’s favoured blood-drawing political satire frequently focuses on the underlying corruption and immorality beneath the vile language and bantering insults, one might say that Stalin’s Soviet Union is kind of low-hanging fruit in that regard. There are few places and times in human history in which it was worse to be alive than the Russia of Joseph Stalin, particular because for myriad reasons it was exceedingly unlikely that you were to be alive for long. Is this a fit setting for comedy, no matter how pitch-dark?

I admitted to being slightly disappointed with the relative superficiality of how In the Loop tackled the deceit and ill intent of the American venture in the Iraq War. The Death of Stalin is better in this regard, though it emphasizes the role of cruel random chance even more than bureaucratized detachment in the commission of atrocities in the Stalinist Soviet state: a prisoner about to be killed exclaims “Long live Stalin!” in a last-ditch effort to save himself, only to be informed by his executioner that Stalin is dead; a second after he is shot and before the next man in line can meet his fate, Beria’s order halting the executions arrives. This randomness that governs life and death defines not only Stalinist oppression for Iannucci, but also the rule of the state in our vaunted democracies as well. But it’s a very different, and perhaps ultimately weaker and less human, force than the systematized and obscured evil that Stalinist Russia is also a defining example of.

The Death of Stalin takes no prisoners, does not soften its harsh blows, offers no really sympathetic port-in-the-storm characters to grasp on to, and concludes not with a note of hope or change but with a postscript on the continuity of backstabbing intrigue at the top of the USSR. In the moment and even for some time afterwards, this is a patently hilarious and deep-cutting satire that doesn’t pull its punches. But in rendering evil in the only way that he really can do it, as absurd rather than as banal, as foolish and random rather than as professionalized and disavowed, I fear that Armando Iannucci waters down Hannah Arendt’s potent critique, both in the historical context of his film and in the contemporary context of our battered and bruised political and social firmament.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

December 1, 2018 1 comment

Sorry to Bother You (2018; Directed by Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You is an incredible film. This is meant in more than one sense of the word: the writing/directing debut from rapper/political activist Boots Riley is a work of dazzling quality and of originality and imagination, a film that announces itself confidently as one of the best of its year before it’s even done being viewed. But it’s also incredible, an audacious fever-dream of contemporary American capitalist culture, society, race relations, and labour economy that must be seen to be believed. I can try, and will try, to describe it and its delirious appeal, but I have no confidence that it won’t intractably frustrate this effort, or indeed that I wouldn’t want it to. No one can be told what Sorry to Bother You is; like The Matrix, you have to see it for yourself.

If you know little else about Sorry to Bother You beyond the boldly-coloured posters used to advertise it or promotional images of star Lakeith Stanfield’s deflated, head-bandaged visage, I might suggest that you keep it that way until you can see the film and see what this forthcoming fuss is about. For those for whom a bit more (but not too much more) information is required before committing to a film, I offer the subsequent description and thoughts.

Stanfield is Cassius Green (“cash is green”, get it? I admit that I didn’t until the movie explained the pun). He lives in a converted garage (complete with inconveniently-opening overhead door) in the Oakland home of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), to whom he owes several months of rent. He hopes his money woes will be at an end soon, however: he interviews for a telemarketing job at a company called Regalview, whose lower management is beset by such a mixture of both boundless cynicism and aspirational buy-ins to business-buzzword narratives that they are impressed by the hustle displayed amidst his shoddy dishonesty about his work history (his fabrications include both a plaque and a trophy from previous invented positions) and hire him on.

Cassius initially struggles with the awkward, dehumanizing intrusiveness of his cold-call work (Riley visualizes Cassius and his entire desk being dropped into the homes of the people he speaks to on the phone), although he forms an in-the-trenches bond with fellow cubicle-bound phone warriors, including his friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), whose hiring at Regalview pre-dates his own, and Squeeze (Steve Yuen), a labour activist intending to organize the telemarketers into a union. Cassius’ girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) even joins up, as a supplement to her work as a contemporary artist of wearing spectacular message earrings, preparing for a splashy installation-and-performance show, and spinning one-word slogan signs on street corners.

But his professional fortunes begin to improve dramatically when an older colleague (Danny Glover) introduces him to the confident, sale-making wonders of the White Voice (David Cross provides the White Voice for Cassius, with Patton Oswalt and Lily James featured as the White Voices for other African-American characters projecting this sound of carefree success and privilege). Cassius is soon promoted to the lucrative upper-floor position of Power Caller, using his White Voice to sell products and opportunities to the ultra-rich for RegalView’s society-dominating client corporation WorryFree, a massive multinational with sunny advertising who give their workers free room, board, food, and clothing in exchange for a contract of lifelong servitude. Cassius’ Power Calling puts him at odds with his coworkers’ strike spearheaded by Squeeze, as he is escorted past their picket line by brutal riot-gear-equipped security contractors to ride a golden elevator up to the Power Caller digs.

This tension between his striking proletarian friends on one hand and the luxurious and seductive world of handsome salaries, tailored suits, fast cars, and indulgent parties (as well as the exploitative exchanges that pay for those things) on the other tugs at Cassius’ conscience and threatens his relationship with Detroit, who sympathizes with the organizing effort and whose art critiques the corporate economy and its deleterious effects. It is, of course, the central dilemma that American capitalism presents to every labourer: commit to the difficult collective campaign for labour rights despite the costs and the deprivations embraced by hostile bosses and authorities alike, or take a more selfish path to a solo rise, turning onto the gilded self-enriching highway of the sell-out with the full knowledge of being complicit in the processes of an iniquitous system. It’s a dilemma all the more fraught for African-Americans, who face White-Voice-like compromises to their identity and community in exchange for a share of majoritarian prosperity. But Cassius will be compelled to choose by a vision of future horror glimpsed during a party at the home of WorryFree’s inscrutable golden-bro CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

This synopsis is a hopelessly inadequate soft-sell of Sorry to Bother You, which is far wilder and stranger and greater a movie than is really possible to summarize as done above. To simply call it a satire of American capitalism, labour, and race, of media and art and activism, is likewise inadequate. It absolutely is that, and is frequently uproariously hilarious in that role. But Riley cultivates and grows a world altogether bizarre and fantastical, a portrait of lively, humane urban depression which might be labelled magic realism if not for the hard edge of perfunctory absurdism and vicious political commentary that comes with it. This absurdity is complete and all-encompassing, Riley suggests, and the society that embraces it and ensures its continuity with the cowboy gusto of the American public is profoundly, troublingly masochistic. The most popular television show in this funhouse version of the United States, after all, is called “I Got The S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”, and asks its enraptured audience to watch as a willing participant is beaten up for its entertainment.

Riley’s film goes whole-hog on lampooning this delirious absurdism, and several scenes and moments are astoundingly funny: the subtext-becomes-text nature of the automated motivational pronouncements in the golden Power Caller elevator, Squeeze’s uncomfortably personal revelations shouted through a protest bullhorn, everything involving White Voices and the Equisapiens (just wait and see). Detroit’s performance art sequence breathes comic life into the low-hanging fruit of making a farce of the already-farcical realm of contemporary art and its political pretensions. And if the code-switching commentary of the White Voice wasn’t enough, Riley mocks the racist assumption on the part of Lift’s affluent Caucasian partygoers that Cassius can rap just because he’s African-American in a moment worthy of Spike Lee’s uncompromising sensibilities.

Spike Lee is a key talisman of influence for Boots Riley, just as Lee’s early ’90s creative peak of iconoclastic and confrontational films of the African-American experience is being recaptured and, in commercial and perhaps artistic ways, surpassed by films in the same vein in the recent African-American film renaissance (albeit served with far more crowd-capturing sugar than Lee’s signature works). 12 Years A SlaveSelma, Get Out, Moonlight, Black Panther, and even Lee’s own BlacKkKlansman have collectively given firm and bold voice on screen to perspectives on the continuing struggles and joys of America’s most historically oppressed minority (who, of course, have also been its pop-cultural vanguard, particularly in the musical realm).

Sorry to Bother You fits into this encouraging wave of memorable African-American films, but also stands off entirely on its own. Boots Riley’s tumult of ideas in this film crashes down on the racial assumptions and white supremacy of the American labour economy, and the discomfiting subtext to all of WorryFree’s practices and initiatives is that American capitalists are incrementally reconstituting the broader terms of chattel slavery, still the most profitable and advantageous labour system in the country’s history from their point of view. But his spectacularly kooky Boccaccian vision of capitalist socioeconomics crosses and re-crosses the colour line, finding class and income oppression intermingling and cooperating with racial discrimination. Sorry to Bother You is a film of black experience, but more broadly and comprehensively it is a film of American experience, and thus a film whose anxieties and satirical targets are intelligible and even personally applicable to people across the globe within the seemingly-infinite reach of American capitalism. And it is an incredible film that must be seen to be believed.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews